From what I gather, the standard American cuts are optimized for ease of industrialized processing and designed so that a carcass can be broken down in just an hour or so via an assembly line process and using power tools. Often this means that you're buying a slab of meat that contains multiple different muscles, each with different cooking properties.
For example, I've always thought the T-bone steak was a dumb cut. You have the tenderloin which cooks differently from the strip loin, leading to different levels of doneness, the bone in the middle is full of gristle, leading to tough meat on what would otherwise be a tender cut and the bone insulates the inner meat from cooking, often leading to a zone of raw meat just near the bone. On the plus side, with an industrial bandsaw, you can reduce a whole strip loin down to a bunch of T-bone steaks in just a few minutes.
I've tried looking for information about how other countries cut meat and it seems like the standard cuts in a lot of different countries seem to respect the natural boundaries of the meat more. Unfortunately, this information seems hard to come by.
Given that my lamb was raised well and comparatively expensive per lb, I felt it was worthwhile to spend a little extra care in butchering it in order to get the most out of the meat.
In cutting my lamb, I tried to follow a few simple principles:
- Leave meat on the bone when the bone can add flavor and increase tenderness.
- Take meat off the bone when the bone hinders tenderness (like the T-bone example)
- Whenever possible, cut at the boundaries between muscles, not through them. This is called "seam boning"
- Whenever possible, remove as much silverskin as possible. Silverskin is connective tissue which doesn't soften when cooking and remains as tough gristle. Silverskin can often be the difference between a a cut suitable for grilling and cuts that need slow cooking. (Blade steak used to be a cheap braising cut until American processors figured out they could cut out the silverskin and instead sell it as a flatiron steak)
- Whenever possible, cut steaks with the grain, not across the grain. I never understood why American steaks are almost always cut across the grain when possible. If you buy a 1" ribeye, every bite you eat is going to have 1" long fibres, making it tougher than it needs to be. However, for something like flank steak, as long as you take care to cut it in the right direction, you're left with ~1/4" fibres, making it tender enough for quick cooking. In addition, cutting with the grain allows things like easily excising that knob of fat you find in all ribeyes.
- Minimize trim. At the end, from a 40lb lamb, I had maybe a 1/2 lb of trim (mainly gristle) and 2lbs of bones that went into stock.
Unfortunately, I had meat juices on my hands the entire time so I didn't have an opportunity to take photos but I can describe some of the more interesting cutting choices I made:
- Racks of lamb are often frenched and the resulting fingers of meat are trim and either discarded or ground. However, these fingers come from the lamb ribs which I consider to be possibly the best cut on the entire carcass. Instead, I frenched the bones before I seperated the ribs from the rack, leaving extra rib meat on the ribs.
- Lamb shoulder is often sold as shoulder blade chops which are often braised. Right in the middle of the shoulder is a large eye muscle which is significantly more tender than the rest of the shoulder. Extracting that gives an incredibly tender but also flavorful and heavily marbled grilling cut.
- The saddle is often sold as lamb loin chops which are the lamb equivalent of the aforementioned T-bone cut I hate. Instead, I boned out the saddle to make a stuffed saddle of lamb which is possible the most impressive and delicious whole roast. Tied properly, it's a perfectly cylindrical cut with an even layer of fat to crisp up on the outside and juicy, tender meat in the middle. A thin layer of absorbent stuffing will soak up any juices from the cooking meat, locking in all the lamb flavor. Here's Gordon Ramsey cooking a saddle. I've never seen a saddle for retail in the US which means you pretty much have to go to the same lengths I've gone to if you ever want to experience this cut.
- One of the legs, I seam boned, removed all the silverskin and then cut thinly across the grain for Xinjiang Yang rou Chuanr kebabs. Properly made Chuanr is possible one of the most addictive foods I've ever tasted and I'm slowly tinkering with my recipe to get it to taste like my memories of the street sellers in China. I make my Chuanr the traditional way with alternatively chunks of meat and fat, minimizing trim.
The entire experience has been incredibly educational and it's given me a much better sense of the animal anatomy and how all the pieces fit together. A whole lamb is 40lbs which is a step up from a chicken but still within the realms of practicality when it comes to disassembly and consumption. From now on, I'm going to buy larger cuts of meat whenever possible and disassemble them in a personalized way, rather than relying on the standard American meat cuts.
I'd love to hear of other people's experiences and happy to answer any questions.